- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 15, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A legislative task force began finalizing its recommendations on the future of Arkansas’ hybrid Medicaid expansion on Tuesday, as a top lawmaker urged colleagues to avoid fights over details about changes to a program that’s providing coverage to more than 200,000 people.

The Health Reform Task Force is expected to begin voting on changes to the state’s “private option,” which uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for low-income residents. The program was crafted as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health law. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has called for renaming the program and overhauling it to add new restrictions, is expected to speak to the panel Wednesday morning.

A co-chairman of the panel said the recommendations will give Hutchinson guidance as he begins negotiating changes to the expansion. Hutchinson has said he plans to meet with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell in Washington next month.

Republican Sen. Jim Hendren, who co-chairs the 16-member panel, urged lawmakers to focus on the general direction of changes and not every specific detail.

“If there is one thing that will sink our efforts here, it is miring in details too early,” the Gravette lawmaker said. “We will have lots of time to fight out those details.”

Hutchinson has proposed adding new restrictions to the program, such as requiring premiums for beneficiaries who make more than 100 percent of the poverty level, a lifetime benefits cap and a requirement that beneficiaries seek workforce training. He’s also proposed requiring beneficiaries to enroll in employer-sponsored insurance if available, with the program paying for premiums and co-pays.

The panel is also looking at broader changes to Medicaid, including a consultant’s recommendation that the state let private companies manage parts of the program for higher-cost populations. A group of lawmakers on Tuesday proposed an alternative that would instead use a “patient centered medical home” approach where services are coordinated through a primary care physician.

Any changes Hutchinson seeks will eventually require legislative approval, and continuing the expanded coverage will require a three-fourths vote of the House and Senate. Hutchinson has not said when he’ll call a special session to take up the expansion changes.

The expansion has sharply divided Republicans, who control both chambers of the Legislature and who have made gains in Arkansas by campaigning against the president’s health care law.

A member of the panel questioned whether any of the proposals being considered can win support from the panel.

“You have several great ideas and we do not have consensus,” Democratic Rep. Reginald Murcock of Marianna said.


Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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